Matt Damon's Identity Crisis
Ford v Ferrari, James Mangold’s latest racing flick about Ford’s unprecedented effort to take on Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race, is a lot of things. For better and for worse, it’s a Dad movie. It’s also a great popcorn movie – a technical marvel that gets your heart pounding and doesn’t take a breath. It’s a movie that thinks it’s about American ingenuity, at least in some sense, even though it’s a better vehicle for the fragile male ego than anything else. But viewed from the perspective of Matthew Paige (yes) Damon’s 25-year career arc, Ford v Ferrari is yet another movie about a man struggling with his identity. The movie opens on Damon’s Carroll Shelby as memories of his 1959 Le Mans victory race through his head; his body, on the other hand, is stuck in a Doctor’s office, his brain processing the news that he will likely never race again. For Shelby, racing is his life. He’s lost the very thing that makes him, well, him. He’s been stripped of his identity, and he sets off in search of reclaiming that part of himself.
This isn’t a new preoccupation for Damon. The kid from Boston who made it big with Good Will Hunting has taken a page out of the city’s corrupt voting playbook when it comes to picking roles that explore identity: do it early and do it often. His obsession with the concept of self hasn’t waned over time, it’s merely metamorphosed, charting a path that reflects the actor’s personal maturation.
Early Career Damon: What Defines Us?
Damon once described himself as a lonely adolescent who, in his own words, struggled with developing “an identity of my own.” His early work reflects that. With a trio of roles in his late 20s, Damon explored the fundamental question of identity: what is it that defines us? For a kid from a middle-class family trying to make it big in Hollywood, Damon’s attempts to answer this question centered around class and caste. In Good Will Hunting, Damon's Will is a janitor from Southie who an MIT professor discovers is a genius hiding in plain sight. Poked and prodded and pushed to ditch his blue-collar buddies and pursue academic excellence, Will resists. He’s intelligent enough to do anything he wants, but his identity is wrapped up in his Southie upbringing. The kids from the other side of the river think they’re “better than,” and Will could never be one of them. Notably co-written by Damon, Good Will Hunting – and Damon’s character in particular – explores a fundamental paradox: how can we escape the circumstances we’re born into if we let those circumstances define who we are in the first place? If he wants to chase something new without losing himself, Will has to unravel his identity and root his sense of self in something other than his social status. This fascination with class, identity, and destiny takes center stage in one of Damon’s next big pictures, the following year’s Rounders. Mike McDermott is working and hustling his way through law school, but at his core, he’s still a poker player. A grinder. Just as in Good Will Hunting, Damon’s character finds himself uncomfortable in the skin of respectability. He’d prefer to be seated at the felt with three stacks of high society than standing on luxurious marble surrounded by actual high society. Throughout Rounders, Mikey McD can’t quite escape his life as a poker player – can’t fully shed the skin of his former self and shrug into the new clothes of Attorney Michael McDermott. But it’s not just poker versus law. It’s blue-collar versus white. Living versus pretending. It’s much easier to connect identity with a concrete thing – a job or a group of friends, for example – than to develop a sense of self removed from those fixed aspects of life. In Good Will Hunting, Will connects his identity to his friends, to the work that Chuckie does for a gravel company. In Rounders, Mike roots his identity in poker. In both cases, these are mechanisms to resist changes that make him feel uncomfortable, particularly because of class implications. There’s no right or wrong career choice – in one, he moves forward to a new life, in the other, he’s pulled back to the one he came from. But if his characters fail to disentangle their identities from symbolic talismans, they’re doomed to repeat the pattern ad infinitum. Damon capped this trilogy of roles with 1999’s Patricia Highsmith adaption The Talented Mr. Ripley. Damon’s Tom Ripley steps into the skin of an identity with more wealth, more status, and more opportunity than his own; well-versed in forgery and impersonation – the art of deception, essentially – Ripley charms himself into the lives of a pair of American socialites in Italy. In Mr. Ripley, the subtext of Damon’s earlier roles becomes text, as his former self turns into his shadow, and Ripley finds himself unable to escape his true identity despite increasing desperation. Class insecurity rears its head once again, just as Damon himself pierced the glittery Hollywood veil and cemented his stardom.
Movie Star Damon: Who Am I?
As Damon’s star rose, his class anxieties fell away, only to be replaced with a slightly more existential crisis – who was he? Thrust from middle-class anonymity to global super-stardom, Damon was forced to reckon with his identity both on and off screen. In Ocean’s Eleven, one of his first Big Hollywood Movies™, Damon found himself playing third fiddle to George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Mirroring his real-life backseat, his character, Linus Caldwell, is fixated on his minor role onthe once and future heist team. Throughout Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, even as Damon’s celebrity was growing off-screen, Linus’s obsession with his importance compared to Rusty (Pitt) and Danny (Clooney) only deepens. The son of a famous conman, Linus shifts from filling his father’s shoes to filling those of Rusty and Danny, failing to develop an identity for himself. And once again, as this period of Damon’s career progressed, his preoccupations moved from background to foreground. In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne is a man who has literally lost his identity. Over three movies and six years, Bourne searches for answers about his past, hoping to better understand himself and his present. Damon’s first time anchoring a Hollywood franchise, Bourne was the logical next step in his career – but also a moment for reflection. From likable every-man to action hero, Damon had plenty of stops along the way, leaving him wondering who he really was as an actor. This was the peak of Damon’s identity crisis, both in fiction and in fact.
Phase Three: Imposter Syndrome
What happened when the kid from Boston became a household name? The same thing that’s happened to nearly all of us at one point or another: imposter syndrome. Did he really belong in Hollywood? Was he one of the rich kids now? Did ‘Damon’ really belong up in the lights with ‘Clooney,’ ‘Roberts,’ and ‘Pitt’? Damon’s roles during this period reflected this internal tug-o-war. In the most famous, 2006’s The Departed, Colin Sullivan is an Irish kid from Boston groomed for the mob from a young age, and subsequently sent undercover with the Massachusetts State Police. The cops work as Hollywood in this elaborate metaphor: Damon fit in seamlessly, but did he really belong? Was he betraying his street values just by being in the building, or could he hold onto some semblance of his real identity even while surrounding himself with the trappings of a new life? Colin visits and ends up dating his therapist (Vera Farmiga), giving the blue blood an outlet for his moral crisis – the same outlet his roles have served for Damon. A few years later, Damon starred in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, a black comedy about Mark Whitaker, one of the most senior executives in American history to become a corporate whistleblower. After over a decade in Tinseltown, it’s as if Damon stopped, looked around, and asked, “who the hell are these people?” Returning to one of his favorite directors, Damon starred as a man who suddenly grows a conscience when his eyes are opened to the misdeeds of those around him. But just as Damon was complicit in the Hollywood system with no intention of leaving it, so too is Whitaker in the middle of his own transgressions while pretending to be guided by some moral compass. The Informant! is a humorous takedown of corporate America, and for Damon, the film industry clearly fell under that umbrella. The same year he featured in The Departed, Damon starred in The Good Shepherd, a spy film centered on Damon’s Edward Wilson, reportedly based in part on covert operations specialist Richard Bissell. The Good Shepherd gets too tangled up in itself to pull loose any real thematic threads, but Damon’s choice to play another covert operative is notable, as is the quote highlighted toward the end of the film, taken straight from John 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” And that’s exactly what happened.
Validation Breeds Freedom
The year after The Good Shepherd closed with that ominous quote, Damon received the ultimate proof of the truth of his identity: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Damon was officially a part of the club – he didn’t have to worry about judgment from others who had been born into royalty, and he needn’t continue to try and prove himself over and over. Damon was free. Unfortunately for the rest of us, it turns out the existential crises had led Damon to some of his juiciest roles. The discomfort in his own skin led him to seek out challenging characters in complex movies. On the flip side, his newfound freedom and luxury led to some knee-jerk choices that disappointed quite a few audiences. During this period, Damon’s roles were much more surface-level. The films ranged in quality – from Invictus to Monuments Men to The Adjustment Bureau, Damon rarely dug deep. He was a known commodity by this point, and his face did most of the work – the recognizable every-man, the reluctant action hero. Even with more to chew on, like in Soderbergh’s Contagion and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Damon did little to plumb the depths he’d reached earlier in his career. But then something happened. Because as much as it seemed as though his career had begun to hit that downward trajectory, everyone but Damon forgot one simple fact. That sometimes, all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery.
The Current Era: Doubt Creeps Back In
Beginning with two desperate attempts to regain his former glory in 2016’s Jason Bourne and The Great Wall, this period has been marked by Damon’s gradual acknowledgement that he is no longer the actor he once was. This final crisis has once more brought Damon to the doorstep of some of his best performances – difficult characters that force him to reckon with his own identity, both past and present. In Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, Damon’s performance of a man that shrinks himself as an easy solution to some of life’s problems was low-key one of his best in years, despite the director failing to reach the heights of some of his past efforts. The film becomes muddled with confused environmental messaging, but it finds strength in the very simple story of a man who can’t afford the luxuries he once had, forced to literally shrink himself to continue living in a world that is passing him by. The comparison to Damon’s career is difficult to miss: as Hollywood turns to younger, buffer, sexier actors, Damon has officially begun the shift to roles that may seem like “less than” from the outside. For the rest of us, though, miniature Matt Damon was a welcome return to form. And we’re back to Ford v Ferrari, where he’s lost what he had. For Carroll Shelby, that's racing. For Damon, it's just the inevitable physical decline of aging, and the difficult process of accepting his own limitations. And just as Carroll Shelby found creative ways to stay involved in racing, Damon has found his own ways to stay at the forefront of the film world. Beyond roles like Shelby, he’s been active in humanitarian work, and has a notable but young track record as a producer, including 2016’s Oscar nominee Manchester by the Sea. In Ford, Shelby loses his ability to race, something that he had once seen as essential to his identity; in Good Will Hunting, Will gains something (intelligence) that somehow seemed antithetical to his identity. In both cases, at both ends of his career, Damon’s characters struggle to separate their identities from the things they do, the people they surround themselves with, the lives they lead. As Damon has experienced the ups and downs of a career as a successful actor, it seems he’s finally figured out who he is beneath it all.